Lands of Exile: But ‘n’ Ben
Stuart France & Sue Vincent
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20th Dec 2016 – 27 Dec 2016
For once, Don was right… it was all Wen’s fault.
If only Ben had not insisted in going back for the gun…
Don and Wen should hand themselves in and share the fate of their co-conspirator. It would be the noble thing to do.
Does this course of action appeal to our errant duo?
Not on your Nelly!
As Ben languishes in the dank cells of Bakewell Gaol, Don and Wen hit the road. Their headlong dash for freedom takes them north, where they are beset by a host of ‘Orphan Stones’ clamouring to be led back home.
But they are not alone… and the sinister Black Shade is not the only thing dogging their heels as they blaze their customary trail through the signs, seals and sacred sites of old Albion.
The unofficial re-siting of an ancient stone is viewed in a rather negative manner by the authorities. Ben has been arrested and the other two birds have flown.
Heading north, Don and Wen follow the whisperings of ancient stones carved with enigmatic symbols, unaware that they are being followed.
Their journey takes them through Cumbria and into Scotland, visiting ancient and historical sites, whilst piecing together fragments of the secret and magical history of Albion.
The Devil’s Door-Knocker.
” …to the Ogham Stone of Fergus mac Roigh
Then to fast for three nights and three days…”
A Hag Load of Lard
The tyres of the Silver Bullet screech like the death throes of a thousand pigs… her torso pitches and rolls and then rocks uncomfortably, eventually settling to a wobble as Wen just about makes the corner, takes it and then straightens her up.
“…And a chance to gather our thoughts.”…
The gathering was as warm and full of friendship as always and the evening went well, though it ended in good time as Don and I needed to find a hotel for the night. Between the uncertain health of the car and the even more uncertain and unseasonable weather, we haven’t booked anywhere in advance, so we set off in the general direction of Chester, with temperatures plummeting.
We feel Chester, at least, is attainable, even if Scotland becomes an impossibility. It doesn’t look promising and we are half expecting to have to return to the Field of Sheaves and abandon the trip. If, that is, we can get back across the hills with the snow. It is that or head south…
The roads were getting dodgy so we checked into the first place we found… right under the landing path for Manchester airport.
Late autumn sleet has fallen and frozen so the footpaths are treacherous… all we can do is wait and see what the morning will bring…
…The contribution tin is closed and locked so we leave our gold pieces on the top of the lid.
“Too early even for farmers,” smiles Wen grimly.
We move naturally into ritual mode as we approach the maw of the recumbent circle. So much has happened since we were last here, although we have still not made it up to Fin Cop as instructed.
“Maybe that’s why things have gone wrong.”
“Have they gone wrong? We don’t yet know that for sure. We just need to know what to do!”…
…It was with some relief that I drew the curtains and looked out on this dark and dingy morning. The ice on the car will need scraping, but the roads are clear for the first real day of our adventure.
We are heading for Chester, an old haunt of Don’s and a place I haven’t visited in decades. In fact, I have only ever really seen the Roman amphitheatre, so I am looking forward to visiting the town and the medieval Cathedral.
We don’t really ‘do’ the cathedrals as a rule, but they are so closely woven with the stories we write and the history of our land that we do have to visit them occasionally and there are so many legends and tales about Chester and its founders that we have no excuse. It has been calling us for a while.
Then too, Don knows it well and it is a pleasure to start our journey in a place of which he has fond memories. Apparently he has something else in the area that he wants me to see too.
…We now know that the aerial form of Arbor Low is a Goddess Figure although we had strongly suspected as much from observing the lay of the land, on our second visit, from the rise of the mound alongside…
Plan and End Elevation in technical terms, or some such…
We each choose a stone, different from the last time we were here and lie down on it…
…We arrived in Chester before the place had woken. The streets were almost empty as we followed the river to a gate in the city walls. A sliver of moon still hung in the sky as we climbed up onto the ancient walkway.
The walls have encircled the city, in some form or another for almost two thousand years. The defences were first built by the Roman invaders to protect their legionary fortress-town of Deva Victrix, then maintained and improved throughout history.
It is always an odd feeling to step back so tangibly in time. Outside the walls you feel the ordinary life of a waking town. There are still Georgian and Tudor buildings rubbing shoulders with the glass and steel of modernism on both sides of the curtain of stone, but inside it is different.
The sense of being within an enclosure seems to resonate with some primal understanding of security; time seems to slow, centuries blend into one another and the ghosts of Roman soldiers and medieval monks make way for the ethereal forms of Regency dandies and Victorian ladies. History animates the images imprinted in the stone…
…The stone is warm beneath our backs.
Above us the clear blue of the sky is powdered with clouds, barely moving.
It is sheltered here in the circle, the earthen banks of the henge protecting the centre from the ceaseless assault of the winds in this high place…
…The four main streets are lined with the medieval Rows… covered walkways above street level now house shops with several floors above, crypts and under-crofts below. The Rows are truly unique; nothing else exists quite like them anywhere in the world. They date back to the 13th century, though the original buildings are now broken by more recent constructions. Today they are preserved and protected.
We walked down to the old market cross in the centre of the town. From here many of the buildings are Victorian restorations in the Jacobean half-timbered style that harmonises well with the original character of the place. You can tell the older buildings though; the weathered stone and higgledy piggledy warping of the wood mark them out from the crisper lines of the later works…
…We close our eyes and wait, feet towards the centre, hands crossed on chests, relaxing each muscle, each limb in turn, breathing deeply of the clear air.
The shift comes.
The world falls away…
…High on a wall a carved crest carries the ancient motto of the Order of the Garter, associated with the royal houses of Britain as well as with some of the legends of Albion… the Green Knight and the Round Table. Above one of the gates in the walls an ornate clock commemorates the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897. Roman pillars stand in the town centre opposite a bronze baby elephant. Everywhere you look there are traces of the distant past, hand in hand with the evolving life of a modern city…
…Back in the silence of the Silver Bullet something needs to break…
“Carry on as though nothing has happened?”
“It was crystal clear, for both of us.”
“Still doesn’t seem right.”
“It’s faith… pure and simple.”
“And ritual, of sorts…”
“…And a very effective disguise…”
“We’ll hide in plain sight.”
“…So if none of this had happened, what would we do?”…
…The camera was working overtime; I would regret that later, after the cathedral and the hillfort. I can’t recall the last time the battery didn’t make it through a visit! But the morning had brightened, the skies had cleared to blue and it promised to be a glorious day. It was still early…the cathedral wasn’t even open yet… and we were in need of breakfast.
We should have known, right from the first. It was there, written in flowers and earth… but although we saw, we didn’t see. How could we? Such signs and portents seldom become clear until after the fact and it is easy to read much into little. Even so… we really should have known…
The sun was cresting the constructed horizon of the town as we walked to the Roman wall to take a first look at the Cathedral, its rays gilding the warmth of the red sandstone and setting a fire in the damp blackness of the trees. From here we could see into the grounds where a Celtic Cross… a solar cross… was laid out in the garden.
The cathedral was still closed, so we went in search of breakfast though I could, undoubtedly, have simply stayed there documenting the menagerie of strange creatures carved in the stonework. Even then I didn’t realise what was to come, or just how many photographs I would have to take, and not even scratch the surface of the artistry and history within.
Legends say that the site has always been sacred. Long ago, so the tales tell, a Druid Grove stood upon this site. Later, a Roman Temple to Apollo, followed by a Roman Basilica dedicated to St Peter and St Paul, possibly when Christianity became the official religion of Rome in the 4th Century.
In its time the Cathedral has been both ecclesiastical college and Abbey. It was once part of a Benedictine monastery dedicated to St Werburgh, granddaughter of Penda, the last pagan king of Mercia. Werburgh’s remains were brought to Chester in 875AD to protect them from the Viking attacks. A church was established by King Alfred’s daughter, Queen Ethelfleda …‘The Lady of The Mercians’… and the relics enshrined in 907AD.
The church was restored by Lady Godiva… she who is said to have ridden naked through the streets of Coventry… and her husband, Earl Leofric of Mercia, but in 1090 this church was razed to the ground.
In 1092AD a new monastery was founded by Hugh Lupus, called ‘The Wolf’, a nephew of William the Conqueror. Work continued for centuries, building and remodelling, right up until the Dissolution of the Monasteries by King Henry VIII in 1540. Unlike many such buildings, however, Chester escaped destruction and King Henry established the Anglican Cathedral of Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary in the abbey in 1541; the last Abbot became the first Dean and the senior monks were made Canons.
The building is incredible. Traceries of lace carved in stone, sculpted wood, stained glass and mosaics… geometric floors and painted ceilings… and a very loud and modern alarm system that can … apparently… be tripped by errant photographers trying to get a shot of a particular ceiling boss. They were very nice about that, I have to say, under the circumstances…
…“Let’s see now… We’d turn up at the Queen Anne, expecting to meet Ben, even though he hadn’t confirmed, and he wouldn’t show up.”
“So let’s play it like that then in the Queen Anne…but by the time we get to the meeting we can have had a text saying Ben is indisposed… nothing for our Companions to worry about…”
“… and then we go off on our research trip as previously announced…”
“Do we eat in the Queen Anne?”
“Well of course we eat in the Queen Anne.”
…In fact, the whole place has a friendly feel, very warm and welcoming, unlike many of the cathedrals where secular power has vied for supremacy with spiritual strength. Schoolchildren in monastic habits were being shown around the building, learning about the lives of their forefathers and the very stone seems to exude peace in the intricately vaulted cloisters.
We decided to climb the tower. The 216 steps to the top allow you to walk the narrow passageways that have been closed to the public for a thousand years. In the spiral staircase hanks of black horsehair still sprout from the walls; a material once used to strengthen the medieval plaster. There is something earthily human about that, somehow; a tangible link with the everyday life of the hands that raised these walls.
Emerging from the first part of the winding stair there is a magnificent view into the body of the church. I could have wished for longer to photograph the bosses on the ceiling, but our guide moved on, ready to show us the Roman pillars supporting the Norman arches… a bit of early architectural recycling.
Higher still and we entered the bell tower. In the lower room there is a collection of machinery used to ring, toll and chime the bells… a miniature museum in itself. In the centre of the room a small aperture opens like a well through which you look down to the Crossing far below.
For me, however, the graffiti was the most fascinating discovery… centuries of names, dates, doodles and designs carved into the stone of the walls. Arcane symbols and practical ones… even the points of the compass onto which someone had carved a perching bird. Human stories whispering from the walls.
Most of the bells have been removed from the church tower and re-housed in a purpose built modern edifice close by. The weight and movement of the great bells was causing structural damage to the fabric of the tower. Now only two remain, dating from 1606 and 1626. One is the Curfew Bell.
The name comes from the French couvre feu… cover fire… It marks the daily curfew, when folks would head to bed and has been rung between 8.45pm and 9pm each night since the 14th century. Originally it signalled the closing of the city gates and, according to local tradition, warned any Welshmen to leave the city. The story goes on to say that it was acceptable to shoot any stray Welshmen after 9pm with a bow and arrow.
From the top of the tower Wales can be seen, along with five counties on a clear day… and the day was perfect.
This is the highest point in the city and from here the landscape itself tells a story. The defensive position of the Roman Garrison is easy to see as the plain spreads out below, bounded by hills, but with a clear view over the plain.
Even today the cathedral dominates Chester… how impressive must it have been amid the low buildings of yesteryear?
It is said that King Charles I followed these narrow ways to the top of the tower and watched the defeat of his forces at Rowton Moor from this spot, bringing him another step closer to the now inevitable destiny of the headsman’s blade…
“…The research trip though, should not be as previously advertised. We will need a slight change of plan because of the very immediate risk of inclement weather…”
“I like the change of plan… even though we’re not going to follow it, but it still doesn’t seem right. I feel like we ought to be doing something… I don’t know… something…”
“Heroic? That’s what got Ben into this mess in the first place.”
…I imagine King Charles would have been accompanied by his entourage. We, however, were lucky enough to be alone as the cold of approaching winter is not a time for crowds of tourists.
I have often looked up at the hidden passageways that run through the walls of such buildings and wished I could walk them. There was a real sense of privilege in being able to do so; to look down on the green square bordered by the cloisters with the Waters of Life statue at its heart… to see the Roman wall encircling the old city and then within once more, to see the glory of the stained glass so close as we descended the twisting stairways.
We marvelled at both the tangible history and the artistry. Everywhere you look, every surface from floor to ceiling bears the evidence of care and craft. In splendour is written the simplicity of the faith of the heart.
We stood at the Crossing, yet another Celtic cross, this time in marble. From the centre you can look up, up to the tiny hole in the floor of the bell tower from which we had looked down and through which a bell rope once hung. A giant St Christopher watches, carrying the knobbed club and the Child, himself carried upon the back of the grotesque figure. In front of us was the quire; pinnacles and spires of wood, static beauty that tells stories… little glimpses of humour and emotion, stories carved in wood captured in the screens, pews and misericords, those mercy seats upon which the officers of the church could rest.
Geometries are laid out in marble upon the floor, pictures of biblical scenes, evangelists and strange faces. Above, the painted glory of the ceiling; the delicate vaulting that supports the weight of the Church looking like wings that could take flight and carry the worshipper lightly to heaven.
There is a distinct difference in the feel of the various areas of the cathedral precincts. The cloisters whisper of prayers repeated in the contemplation of movement. The nave focuses the eye on the quire and altar, the chapels lend themselves to private moments between the heart and the divine and the courtroom seems to provide a link between the inner and outer worlds.
It is a curious place, the courtroom; a unique example of an ecclesiastical consistory court and the oldest remaining in England, dating back to 1636 AD. Within the enclosing walls there is yet another enclosure of time-blackened wood, with raised seats for witness and accused, as well as the seat of judgement. Everyone had their appointed place beneath the authority of the law. The last case judged here was the attempted suicide of a priest in the 1930s.
The small room with its rigid structure seems to echo the confinement of the soul within the outer world, bound and constricted as it is with rules and regulations, social mores and the requirements of necessity. Yet just beyond the door lies a lofty beauty accessible to all, regardless of any perception of social status, both affirming and inspiring faith in a way that seems common to all times, all places and all religions.
Why do we feel the need, I wondered, to construct such magnificence? Partly, I am sure, to assert the political and spiritual power of our religious bodies… a visible symbol that cannot be ignored. But there is more to it than that, for the need seems deep-seated within us. There was no political kudos to be gained when we painted the walls of caves with scenes of nature’s treasures, nor is there any when we decorate our trees and wells with ribbons and flowers.
Within the churches the paint and glass tell stories for the unlettered, teaching the lessons of the Bible and the legends of the church; a moral guide book for the faithful. Symbols, some of which would have been readily understood at the time of their creation, wait side by side in silence with more arcane depictions, understood perhaps only by those who brought a deeper knowledge to bear upon them. It is a language to which we may have lost the keys, yet which speaks to mind and understanding through contemplation in ways for which we may never have known the words.
It seems simplistic to say that we have raised such grand edifices to the glory of our gods, or even that we attempt to portray the wonder of our idea of heaven in the wood and stone of earth. I wonder if there is, in the artistry and vision we bring to the task, some attempt to capture that elusive quality of faith… the awareness of a sheer immensity of a Love of which our human loves are themselves but a pale echo… a need to communicate, to find an answering recognition… or perhaps the art itself is a wordless expression of devotion.
There is something in that which seems to speak to us all, regardless of the path or faith we ourselves follow. We can appreciate the wonder of the created works, even if they tell of a path not our own. The temples of Egypt, the caverns of Lascaux and the Dreamtime paintings of Australia, the golden Buddhas and the temples of India… even when they are not to our taste artistically we can appreciate their artistry and craftsmanship and recognise the kinship of a shared, if differently expressed , vision of the divine.
We left Chester in search of lunch… oh yes, that had only been the morning, but what a morning! A wonderful start to our trip and in perfect weather too, which was a relief…
…The Aircraft pitches and rolls and then goes into a headlong dive, its engine scream resembling that of a German Stuka before it drops its load…
It is barrelling straight for the motel room where I lie sleeping…
There is a knock at the door.
It is Wen with some tea and coffee sachets…
…Whatever the reason for our trip, playing out in the landscape always counts as a holiday, even when it is only for a few hours, so the prospect of whole days of it ahead is just wonderful. It is years since I have been able to take this length of time out, with nothing to do except look, learn and enjoy the landscape and the adventure. And drive… though that, in itself, is a pleasure for me.
Other than Chester as a starting point, we have made few plans. There are places we might like to visit, but there is no set route or itinerary to follow and we have booked no rooms… we are taking the time on trust and seeing where it… and the weather…leads us.
Research for previous books has already taught us a lot and snippets of information lurk in the dark corners of the mind, waiting for their chance to peek out and wave. We will simply see what happens and where the adventure unfolds.
We both have places we want to share and The Greyhound in Saughall is one of Don’s. We decided to start with merely a little liquid refreshment, before a gentle stroll through the quagmire of the fields. “We haven’t seen any hawks yet,” Don had said, as we waited for the pub to open. We are sort of used to their presence and miss them when they are not around.
We needn’t have worried though, as we looked up to see, right on cue, what we hoped would be the first of many fly over, harried by a crow and a seagull. A tad worrying, under the circumstances…
Donning our boots we tramped across the fields through a mixture of mud and ice. Most of the ground was still frozen. The path led down then uphill, skirting a bend in the river, before meandering through woodlands, where we met a very curious robin.
We finally reached a stream where even the trees seem to be cuddling up for warmth.
Crossing the water we emerged into sunlit fields where Don turned and grinned… that look that tells me he has something to show me.
Sure enough the unmistakable signs of earthwork mounds undulated around us. It is almost impossible to tell with the eye alone what age these places may be. The Neolithic mounds and the Norman motte and baileys can look very similar. The problem is further compounded by the fact that many older mounds were later adopted and adapted to strategic use due to their position in the landscape or their importance to its people.
This one is known as Shotwick Castle and was once a Norman garrison, built by none other than Hugh Lupus, Earl of Chester, known as the Wolf. It was he who had, in 1093AD, built both this castle to control the crossing of the River Dee and begun the construction of St Werburgh’s Abbey, now Chester Cathedral, where we had spent the morning. According to my research, he had also endowed the Abbey at Whitby, where we have been planning to go for some time.
Nothing now remains of the castle save the mounds and the moat and vague echoes in the landscape. The place has not been formally excavated to date, though a private dig in 1876 uncovered a spur, some pottery and fragments of antlers.
Looking at the landscape we had to wonder what had stood here before. It has the feel of a more ancient site, even in the chill sunlight. The echoes of childish laughter still haunt the stream and I feel there is more to know about this place…
…I am now at the window of my room looking out at a white world and the moon which still holds sway in the early morning sky, as the steam from the kettle finally builds its head.
Another aircraft screams through the sky overhead too low to be safe…surely.
Wen is sprawled on the bed, engrossed in a road map, “If we follow the original plan,” she says quietly, “our route will take us very close to Ben’s mum’s place.”
“Ben’s mum’s place may be watched by now.”
“Oh, c’mon… aren’t we being a tad paranoid here? It’s been a little over twenty-four hours since Ben’s arrest… and we’re hardly talking crown jewels after all… and in any case… I’ll be very circumspect.”
“I can’t stop you, it’s your car.”…
…It was here that the camera battery gave up the ghost, exhausted, no doubt, from the morning in Chester. Thinking I could always borrow the battery from the other camera I was not too disappointed… till I realised that it too had died. We headed back to The Greyhound to dine and to frantically try and charge the thing in a handy socket, to little avail.
There was still daylight left after dinner but the weather was looking unpromising and Chester is not somewhere you want to get stuck if it snows, at least not unless you are ensconced in a nice warm bar with somewhere to stay. I knew of a hotel in Sandbach… knew exactly where it was, in fact, having delivered there regularly in my white van days. Nice and handy for both the town and the motorway, which we guessed would be okay even if it did snow.
Our plan was still to head north, but if the weather took a dramatic turn for the worse we could just head south instead… Either way, the motorway would be useful. Counting hawks as we drove… nine in all on that stretch, mostly just sitting in the trees and watching our progress…we headed for ‘my’ hotel.
“Unless they’ve demolished it,” said Don, laughing.
Which, apparently… they have.
Which was a bit of a sod, really, as the inn where we finally found that out had no rooms left either and the only other place we had seen looked both beautiful and way too expensive.
The phone battery had died too… technology really wasn’t playing nicely.
By this time it was dark and we were tired. I had packed the car with blankets and duvet, in case of emergencies given the unseasonable weather and that was beginning to look like an option.
We finally managed to get a brief connection on the laptop and located an old place further out of town… and we couldn’t have found better had we trawled the net and booked…
Bark Jaw-Dark contemplated the pork pie he had recently fished from the depths of the jacket pocket of his un-pressed suit and placed it whole in his mouth.
“Jaw-Dark,” spluttered Bark through the pork and pastry.
“Is this a joke?” snarled Bark’s mentor, Tom Patrick, picking up the newly positioned desk tag and scrutinising it distastefully.
Bark swallowed and gulped, “Real name’s Mark… first day at school… had a cold… never been able to shake it.”
“The cold or the name?” smiled Patrick, briefly impressed with his own wit, and then continued more seriously, “You don’t get these unless you’re important… and you’re not.”
The desk tag flew through the air and plummeted into the depths of the tall blue recycling bin with a dull thud.
“And you can drop the sir. It’s Tom. In this day and age we treat you like shit but informally. It’s called progress…Got it?”
“Good lad,” growled Patrick turning to leave.
“Did you want me?”
“Ah yes…” said Patrick turning back, “the stone hugger!”
…Bark looked blank.
“Wealthy business man… moved a stone… went back for the gun… mad as a frog…”
“…In a box full of other frogs?”
“…In the clink.”
“I’d gathered that, but what about him…?”
“He wasn’t alone. Prime suspects… fellow directors of his school of conscience, or some such, have disappeared. Supposed to be on holiday but no one’s sure quite where. They’ve done a runner if you ask me. That’s where you come in.”
“Ah!” said Bark Jaw-Dark rising to his feet and pulling down his suit. “They are wanted in order to help the police in their enquiries.”
“Attaboy,” said Patrick. “You’ve got the weekend.”
A business card landed on Bark’s desk bearing the Egyptian Eye of Horus and a moniker, ‘The Silent Eye, a school of consciousness.’
“I don’t work week…” But Patrick had gone.
Bark Jaw-Dark fished his name tag out of the recycle bin and placed it back on his desk. He pulled down his suit again, sat down, picked up the business card and turned on his computer…
She is looking at me, the stranger child.
Eyes green as summer …
She looks at me as if she knows me.
Better than I know myself.
They say the Old Ones have green eyes.
She watches as I haul in the fish trap…
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20th Dec 2016 – 27 Dec 2016